The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia have to decide if they want to be a player or just four more tennis balls. If the latter, they will be easily played by both domestic radicals and external actors.
A Hangover from the 1990s
In some readings, the Visegrad Group is the child of an internecine dispute over the fate of Central Europe triggered among dissidents and intellectuals. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the Eastern Blockers were keenly looking to locate their identity in opposition to the Soviet one. The likes of Miłosz, Konrád and Havel thus initiated a dialogue about the region’s own history, heritage and experience. Thirty years on, however, in an era when politics is understood as a pure pragmatism, a mere tool for engineering economic growth and high levels of consumption, this soft, idealist side to the V4 would look like a relic of old times.
Now entering its early 20s, the format faces questions regarding its raison d’etre that go beyond mere intellectual problems. Central Europe experts fielding queries from journalists have had to learn to give a simple answer to the recurrent question: “What is the Visegrad Four for?” Or the cheekier alternative: “Can you list the V4’s recent achievements?” The public remains largely unaware of the V4’s goals. And much of the trouble is that the V4’s founding objective has been achieved: the V4 was formed in 1991 to facilitate the Euro-Atlantic integration of three former Eastern Bloc countries—Czechoslovakia (later the Czech Republic and Slovakia), Hungary and Poland. Today, all of four are members of both EU and NATO.
Indeed, the V4 was useful in the early 1990s when its target was to bring Central European countries into the Euro-Atlantic institutions. There were certainly clashes between the Four at that time—the most eye-popping one being when Václav Klaus’s Prague practically refused to cooperate. And yet, the resolution of these problems, and the proof of collective solidarity, was much appreciated by both NATO and the EU which opened their doors in 1999 and 2004. With that, however, the EU took over as guarantor of Central Europe’s economic and civilizational development, and NATO extended its protective umbrella over the region.
It is true that, although much less experienced than its Western or Northern counterparts such as the Benelux Union (est. 1944) and the Nordic Council (est. 1952), the Group managed to build its own brand over the past two decades among EU policymakers. But still the V4 had lost its raison d’etre and, with the establishment of the International Visegrad Fund in 2000, the format looked set to become a provider of grants and scholarships. Unfortunately, no V4 achievement will be listed among the great triumphs of EU history, and it clearly needs to deliver “more concrete” and “more visible” results.
Mission Is Not Accomplished Yet
And yet, it may be that the V4 still does have a strong rationale—the problem is only that it has failed to locate it. This is clear to those analysts of Central Europe who consider the long term perspective. They acknowledge the qualitative difference between Central Europe’s first two decades of the new century and the turbulent inter-war period of the last one. Back then, not one of the Four had trouble-free relations with its neighbors. Hungarians looked for revenge for Trianon from Slovaks; the Poles were at loggerheads with the Czechs. That world is now long gone, and the post-1989 period is the first time in history that relations in Central Europe are not based on hegemony, domination or fear. This, however, does not mean that such positive juncture will persist.
Petty nationalism, historical resentments and minority problems—all of them sooner or later may resurface, especially in times of economic turmoil, when the EU is exerting a strong normative influence on each of the four, and where large member states are talking about a repatriation of EU competencies. And this is precisely why the region needs a platform for dialogue and cooperation such as the Visegrad Group. This platform allows its members to discuss their common interests, voice them jointly in the EU and thereby balance national egotisms. Bearing in mind the experience of the past, the closest-possible collaboration between Central European countries seems sensible. This cooperation should not only include the search for a common political voice in the EU, but also contribute to strengthening ties in many non-political areas.
Thus it will not just be about squeezing money out of the European Union for large-scale projects. The real stimulus for cooperation, it is argued, can be joint projects leading to decent and shared infrastructure that creates strong ties between cities and people. Today, these ties are surprisingly weak. It is challenging to get from one Central European city to another, and we know very little about the history, past or present of our neighbors. These factors are potentially treacherous as they can be easily used by populists, who are always happy to exploit a lack of popular knowledge for their own purposes. Leaving the V4 format to politicians would severely undermine its potential for developing social contacts and mutual understanding.
Looking for a New Foundation
But then the question remains whether all this could be achieved under a different umbrella. We tend to forget that after the collapse of Communism a variety of Central European formats was established, but all of them have lost their significance or tasted extinction over the last twenty years, the Central European Initiative (CEI) being the most expressive example. Today, there is no competition for the V4 in the region. This is something which should not really be a feather in the format’s hat. But nevertheless, it does suggest that the V4 has the potential to become something more important than a grant provider or an initiative completely subordinated to the EU. There are at least four areas where the V4 could play a more proactive role. In these areas the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia have to decide if they want to be a real player or just four more tennis balls.
Energy security—and more specifically gas security—points to a potential success story. In many ways, the “formative experiences” for the region were the 2006 and 2009 gas supply cuts. These led to many substantial improvements within the so-called North-South Initiative, and today the Fours’ readiness to deal with similar problems is higher than it was back in the second half of the 2000s. Still, this is only the starting point for more ambitious joint goals. The Four must resist falling prey again to national egoisms, which would mean wasting the chance for both diversification and for creating a common market in the region.
Another challenge is arranging the relationship with global powers, the U.S., China and Russia, which for economic and political reasons are still investing in their presence in Central Europe. From the perspective of large powers such a creature as the Visegrad Group simply does not exist, nor does its common voice. This is why global powers so easily play the game of “divide et impera” in the region, while at the same time they pay court to brand entities such as“Scandinavia.” For the V4, a stark choice will present itself: ether take a greater and more solidary interest in global issues (also with the wider EU), or face isolation. This certainly may be a chance for the region to establish its own political identity.
Now is also the right time to initiate a healthy dispute about the Visegrad Group. In none of the Four has a dialogue on “Central European policy” been successfully implemented. In Poland, for instance, the intellectual heritage of “Central European policy” is hardly smaller than of the Eastern Policy (the Giedroyc doctrine), but still it is the latter that stirs public emotions, provokes arguments and remains consistently at the heart of publicists’ attentions. Perhaps it is an effect of the process of joining the EU: in their own affairs, the Four have been Europeanized and taught by Brussels, but when it comes to the East, they still feel they have something to teach Brussels. However, the discussion on greater institutionalization using the experiences of the Nordic Council should be initiated, as well as on the Visegrad Plus format, which until now has not been used properly.
Ukraine as a Matter of Survival
Last, but not least: a common Visegrad voice is still missing in relations with its eastern neighbors. Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic all have a strong interest in developments in Ukraine, with which they either share a common border or the support for Ukrainian civil society. But the recent crisis has been showing that even the V4 members tend to act separately, and with moderate success. Truth to tell, the Group has always faced problems taking up common positions on topics of a strategic nature: members of the V4 could not speak with one voice on the 2008 war in Georgia, or the installation of American anti-missile defense systems. However, the war in southeastern Ukraine is unique, as it is about the stability and safety of a V4 neighbor, and so indirectly, also of Central Europe.
Let’s be honest: this is a test that the V4 has never faced before. And the Group is failing it. The Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia still share the conviction that Russia is a key partner in the East and as such should not be marginalized, and that all disputes (regardless of the scale of action inspired or directly carried out by Russia in Ukraine) should be resolved through diplomatic dialogue. Finding greater risk from possible deterioration of its trade with Moscow, than in Russia’s aggressive actions in EU’s closest neighborhood, takes form in practice of passive acceptance of the status quo, sort of a “Visegrad do-nothing” policy. Public statements by the V4 leaders on “impartiality” in the crisis in Ukraine (Viktor Orbán), “unnecessary and harmful sanctions” (Robert Fico) or “civil war between groups of Ukrainian citizenship” (Miloš Zeman), even if not always fully reflective of the views of their governments, testify to the fact that these Central European elites do ignore the importance of the Ukrainian-Russian conflict and its direct threat to their own region.
It is nothing but a mistake. For so many years, the V4 watched calmly as Russia played a game of divide and rule in the region, which was able to speak with one voice only in few cases. There was a strong conviction that with an accession to the Western structures, the place of Central Europe in the world, between Germany and Russia, had somehow changed. It has not. Now the region may be wealthier, better educated and better connected than ever before, but it is just as exposed to the unpredictability of its big eastern neighbor as it was a hundred years ago. Now, the Visegrad countries are all a members of NATO, a fact that should surely be some consolation, but if history teaches us anything, it is that such alliances should not be overrated, especially at a time of U.S. retrenchment, but should be treated rather as a supplement to national defense capabilities.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, which, unlike Georgia, is not on another planet, but right next door, should remind the V4 not only of where it is on the map, but also of how fragile the heritage of the past twenty-five years can turn out to be. In Warsaw, Budapest, Bratislava and Prague, one must realize that there will be no hesitation to reconstruct nineteenth-century methods of doing politics in this region too, if the right excuse appears. This excuse may be anything, maybe the protection of minorities or economic interests. Edward R. Murrow once said that our history will be what we make it. If the region will go on as it is, then history will take revenge, and retribution will not limp in catching up with it.
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